CU Paving Way For Eminent Domain Use

Columbia officials have requested that the state consider condemning property in West Harlem for the University's Manhattanville expansion plan and have made a payment of $300,000 to cover the state's legal fees.

The request was made in a letter sent last summer to the Empire State Development Corporation, a state authority that facilitates development projects and can condemn property for private developers using eminent domain, and signed by Columbia's Deputy General Counsel Howard Jacobson. Spectator obtained the letter under the Freedom of Information Law.

While the six-page letter is only a preliminary agreement between Columbia and ESDC and contains no specific promises to condemn property, it is the clearest expression to date of the possibility that eminent domain, the ability of government to forcibly buy property for "public use," may be used for Columbia's expansion and has raised concerns about how open the University has been in its dealings with the community.

"Columbia has requested that the ... Empire State Development Corporation, subject to applicable law, consider the condemnation of portions of the Property not under Columbia Control and the transfer of title by deed, subject to appropriate restrictions, to facilitate development by Columbia of facilities to be used for academic, administrative, student and faculty residences, retail, parking, on-site energy, open space, a hotel and other related or ancillary uses and public amenities currently under discussion. This letter agreement sets forth the agreement of Columbia to pay certain costs to the extent incurred by ESDC in connection with the Project," the letter states.

The document also contains assurances that Columbia will assume liability for any lawsuits brought against ESDC in their work, which was defined in the letter as "drafting, reviewing and/or negotiating ... restrictive deeds and land acquisition and disposition agreement(s) between ESDC and Columbia, and necessary or appropriate documents related thereto."

University officials downplayed the significance of the agreement and explained that Columbia's communication with ESDC is a necessary part of any development of the scope of the planned Manhattanville project.

"We have said repeatedly that the decision [to use eminent domain] is the state's, and we are not prepared to take the option off the table. Signing this reimbursement letter was a necessary step to preserve the option," said Liz Golden, a University spokeswoman.

The letter stipulates that Columbia will pay ESDC $300,000 to cover any costs incurred in conjunction with its work on the expansion project, including the retention of condemnation counsel. University officials and ESDC both confirmed that the payment had been made. The letter also states that if the balance of the account in which the payment was placed drops below $100,000, ESDC will request additional funds. University officials said that this scenario has not yet taken place, meaning that ESDC has spent no more than $200,000 investigating possible condemnation in Manhattanville.

The last paragraph of the letter states, "If the foregoing accurately sets forth our understanding, kindly sign two of the enclosed copies of this letter agreement in the space set forth below, ... whereupon this letter agreement shall become a binding agreement." The space below is signed by Charles Gargano, chairman and chief executive officer of ESDC.

Chapin Fay, an ESDC spokesman, confirmed that the letter represented a legal agreement between the University and the authority. He emphasized, however, that it was preliminary.

"Columbia University has asked ESDC to consider assisting in the University's proposed expansion, which may include the use of eminent domain," he said. "ESDC is currently evaluating the proposal and determining whether any ESDC assistance might be appropriate ... No commitment has been made regarding any potential ESDC actions."

In order for any above-ground condemnation to go forward, property must be declared "blighted" under the law as determined by an independent blight study. Such a study was not mentioned in the letter and University officials denied they had asked for one to be conducted.

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of Community Board 9, said he was not surprised to learn that the use of eminent domain in Manhattanville was under consideration. He said he thought that any such move would take place in the future and that he had not been informed that Columbia had initiated communications with ESDC.

"What is a surprise is that it has actually been contracted with ESDC, that they have actually paid $300,000 to ESDC, and that Mr. Gargano, without even deigning to consult with the community, has signed this agreement," he said.

Reyes-Montblanc said that the relationship between the University and the community would be affected by what he called "a very destructive action by Columbia."

"I'm disappointed at Columbia, and I'm highly pissed off at ESDC," he said. "Now we cannot trust either one."

Fay called Reyes-Montblanc's criticisms "unfounded," noting there is "a very public process involved when we get to that point."

"We are not at that point yet, and no commitment or decision has been made other than to consider a proposal," he said.

Golden said that the letter's disclosure would not change Columbia's standing while working with community members and groups.

"The issue of condemnation is not new and we will continue to keep the community informed about our proposed actions in Manhattanville," she said. "In any ongoing relationship, there are going to be areas of agreement and sometimes areas of disagreement. Our first priority is to continue to negotiate the purchase of properties in a way that addresses the needs of individual owners and meets the University's objectives."

Susan Russell, chief of staff to City Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Washington Heights), said the Councilman was disturbed that Columbia had initiated communication about condemnation without informing the community. She said that, after reading the letter, he had called Columbia Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin to express his concerns.

"He [Jackson] didn't know that Columbia had done this and he is disappointed that the Community Board did not know about this, because he thought that there would be more openness and discussion in this process," Russell said.

"They keep representing to the community that they don't want to go in this direction, and then we find out about this document," she said, adding that Jackson "hopes there will be more transparency on Columbia's part" and "expects much better going forward."

Councilman Jackson, whose district includes the affected area, is "absolutely opposed" to the use of eminent domain in Manhattanville.

"We do expect that people will react strongly to this," Russel said.

Reyes-Montblanc also warned that the letter would have significant impact.

"Those who know me know that there will be some kind of reaction, and it will not be pretty," he said.

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